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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Species Spotlight #17: California Sea Lion

North Carolina doesn’t really get seals. At least, not like they do in the rest of the country. Sure you can get the odd Harbor Seal in winter if you look in the right spot (I’ve seen just one at Oregon Inlet), but it’s not like they swarm over docks and buoys like they do in much of the northeast. Likewise, in California, seals are just a part of life. Well, not seals technically. No, these eared behemoths in the family Otariidae are sea lions.

We first spotted the ubiquitous California Sea Lion in the middle of San Diego bay, where they pile by the hundreds onto floating platforms next to the naval docks. As we approached, we could hear their bellowing barks as they called out to each other, that classic seal sound you hear in the old movies – orf! orf! orf! We watched them slide into the water, transforming from clumsy beast to graceful swimmer, turning and rolling in the ocean as they searched for food.

In colloquial Spanish, they call them los lobos del mar: the wolves of the sea.

That could have been the last we saw of these magnificent creatures, but we took a small side trip down to La Jolla Cove one day. As the Brown Pelicans nested on the cliff face and the Brandt’s Cormorants roosted along the precipice, a large pod of California Sea Lions swam in a little inlet inside the kelp line. Even at this distance, we could clearly see most of the pod were smaller females, with the one big bull seen above swimming among them. As the sea lions swam closer, they became suddenly juxtaposed against seemingly insignificant snorkelers looking the bright orange Garibaldi fish you can see swimming just under the ocean’s surface. The sea lions paid the potential prey little attention, as over the years these animals have become accustomed to life with humans. But it’s clear that humans aren’t the ones who rule the seas in San Diego – it’s el lobo del mar. The California Sea Lion.

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